Kieshaun White, 20, youth environmental justice advocate, has dedicated the last four years to studying air quality in Fresno, horrified at his findings that people in north Fresno have a higher life expectancy — up to 25 years — than those in south Fresno.
“My community doesn’t even know how this affects their lives,” White said.
White has been working to challenge community and city leaders to recognize the connection between environmental factors such as air quality and gang and gun violence and treat this as a public health concern rather than a criminal justice issue.
The most recent youth shootings involved a 15-year-old in southeast Fresno on Nov. 15, and a 13-year-old boy from central Fresno on Nov. 24 — two areas highly impacted by gun violence. The city has seen a steep climb in gun violence this year with 63 homicides.
Marcel Woodruff, lead organizer with Faith in the Valley, said the most active pockets of town are known to have some of the worst air quality in Fresno.
“This is not a coincidence,” Woodruff said.
Inspired by tragedy
In 2015, White’s older brother, Deondre Howard, 21, a popular Fresno City College athlete, was shot outside of their home and killed. Only 14 years old at the time, White made the commitment to learn more about the environmental factors that negatively impact communities like his, resulting in gang and gun violence.
With the support of his mentor, Woodruff, White started the Fresno Healthy Air nonprofit and the Kieshaun White Healthy Air Experiment in 2016.
Woodruff and White divided Fresno into four quadrants — Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and Southeast — and measured the air at five schools in each quadrant, using a fine particulate matter reader to find the median level of pollution.
“North Fresno has shown to have four times better air quality than southwest Fresno,” White said.
This experiment is conducted every year, with the most recent results collected in January. The national standard for PM 2.5 levels is 12 particulate matter per cubic meter.
In the most recent experiment, the readings from each of the four quadrants exceeded the national standard, with the Northwest by 1.81 times; the Northeast by 1.87 times; Southeast by 2.11 times and Southwest by 2.27 times. The average Fresno resident breathes in PM 2.5 at levels approximately twice the national safety standard.
According to the Fresno Air Quality Index (AQI), most of Fresno’s pollution comes from emissions from vehicle and cargo truck traffic passing through the Valley, factory emissions from industry and farming operations, pesticides and airborne chemicals from agricultural processes and the smoke from nearby wildfires that hovers over the city.
How does bad air correlate with violence?
A 1994 article published in The Atlantic by American author Robert Kaplan urged then-President Bill Clinton and policymakers to look at environmental security with significance for the first time and changed the political climate around green spaces.
Kaplan researched one of the most violent and underdeveloped villages in West Africa and concluded that the high level of crime was due to nonexistent social structures, lack of resources and education, and overall unhealthy environments due to disease and pollution. Kaplan suggested that this same phenomenon was spreading in the U.S.
In a 2018 study by the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, researchers at Colorado State and University of Minnesota found the first significant link between poor air quality and aggression.
The study tracked ozone pollution and particulate matter (PM 2.5) in 397 counties in 35 states across the U.S. and found that a spike of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5 was associated with a 1.4% increase in violent crimes, mostly in the form of physical assault — small, but a worthy finding for environmental and social researchers. A similar pattern was found in the United Kingdom.
“We also know that bad air also causes heat islands, which naturally makes people more stressed out and aggressive,” Woodruff said.
The heat-island effect posits that people who live in the hottest parts of a given city are more likely to be poor, live shorter lives due to increased health risks, and are likely to experience higher rates of violence.
Bad air also makes people sick. The small air particles can reach the lungs and bloodstream leading to health problems like premature death and birth, asthma, and increased respiratory and heart issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Fresno, Madera and Hanford rank No. 1 in worst metropolitan area for particle pollution in the U.S in the AQI.
In 2019, Madera was one of the most dangerous cities for violent crime, while Fresno has consistently led as one of the highest crime cities in America with an average of 3,000 violent and 18,000 property crimes a year.
A clean community can be a safe community
In November, Healthy Fresno Air, Faith in Valley and Advance Peace hosted the Fresno Clean Up project — a month-long gathering to clean and pick up trash at six Fresno parks.
“When you live in a community that looks just as bad today as it did for your parents, it’s a problem,” White said. “Our goal is to clean up our community so our decision makers join us, too.”
Woodruff and White aim to educate lower-income Fresno communities about the broken window theory, a 1980s study that suggests vandalism such as graffiti, loitering, broken car windows or buildings, if unrepaired for a long period, attracts more vandalism. Woodruff and White hope this theory influences city leaders to prioritize the more neglected Fresno neighborhoods.
“We have to look at how the environment influences behavior,” Woodruff said. “When you see graffiti in a particular area, that’s kids sending the message that they don’t care about that neighborhood because it doesn’t care about them.”
Roads and parks highlight some of the more obvious differences between the southern and northern parts of Fresno. Most parks in the southwest and southeast are covered with graffiti and trash, or used as encampment villages. Many roads are cracked or have potholes.
“As a driver, I notice that Fresno has the worst roads, yet somehow they all become great in north Fresno,” said Mark Matthieu, a grocery delivery driver and resident of Fresno.
Other residents say parks in south Fresno lack general maintenance such as landscape, clean bathrooms and upgraded equipment
Where does the work begin?
Research does not suggest that air pollution is the sole determining factor for violence, but there is an emerging pattern, from research around the world, that impacted communities need environmental policies to promote healthy livelihoods in neighborhood spaces.
Rita Sepulveda, school psychologist with the Madera County Superintendent of Schools, said children and youth living in unkempt or overcrowded conditions — typically communities of low socioeconomic status — have been found to be more susceptible to respiratory issues, mental health disorders, poor academic achievement, behavioral and socioemotional issues and developmental delays.
“We see a lack of housing quality, high exposure to pollutants and toxins, little access to healthy foods and inadequate places to play and exercise,” Sepulveda said.
A call for safety and security
Behind the doors of the Juvenile Justice Campus in Fresno, Focus Forward, a non-profit organization within the facility, supports incarcerated youth and their families, working to create a safe environment that incarcerated children can thrive in.
“Incarcerated youth tell us they feel the need to have a gun because they don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods,” said Joanna Litchenberg, CEO of Focus Forward, adding that incarcerated young people should feel “safe enough to feel like they don’t have to be on the defensive all the time and ready to fight because they’re in survival mode.”
Inside the facility, confined youth are on regimented schedules and are guaranteed food and shelter, giving them a sense of security. Litchenberg said they have witnessed youth from different gangs get along and are better able to focus on improving their lives.
“It’s amazing what safety, security and hope can do for young people,” she said. “If we can create these elements in our neighborhoods, maybe we can start to see that cycle of violence finally end.”